Perhaps no unit was hit as hard by injuries as the Bolts linebacking corps. In fact, the projected starting foursome heading into the season of Jarret Johnson, Donald Butler, Manti Te’o and Dwight Freeney played only one game together, unable to get out of the match unscathed as Freeney was lost for the season in that Week 4 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Still, there were plenty of highlights by the linebackers as a whole, especially when they regained their health toward the end of the season.
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The injury bug hit the Bolts backers immediately. Before the 2013 campaign even began, second-year linebacker Melvin Ingram tore his ACL in the second OTA practice in May. It was thought he’d be lost for the entire season, but Ingram worked tirelessly to return and did just that in December. His return was a boon to the team, as they went 5-1 with him on the field. His first game back was Dec. 8th and in four regular season games, he posted 13 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss, four pressures, one QB hit and one forced fumble. Ingram came up big in the postseason as well, particularly in the Wild Card round against the Cincinnati Bengals when he had a fourth quarter interception, the first of his career, to essentially ice the game.
The venerable Johnson also battled a myriad of injuries, missing five games as a result. Still, he continued to set the edge, finishing with 49 tackles, 3.0 sacks, four tackles for loss, four quarterback pressures, five hits, four passes defensed and one forced fumble. His 3.0 sacks were the most he posted in the last four seasons. Johnson’s season got off to a fantastic start when he batted a Matt Schaub pass on the first snap of the game straight up in the air for a Cam Thomas interception.
Butler was another linebacker who dealt with injuries, forcing him to miss four games. Nonetheless, he was extremely productive on the field as his 99 tackles ranked second on the team. He also had four tackles for loss, five QB pressures, three passes defensed, one forced fumble, one interception and 0.5 sacks. In the postseason, Butler had a pair of game-changing plays. First, with the Bengals on the doorstep of scoring a touchdown late in the first half, he chopped the ball loose within the five-yard line from Giovanni Bernard that the Bolts recovered. It was the first of four turnovers the team recorded on that day and the team credited that play with providing an incredible lift. Then, he kept the Chargers in the game at the end of the first half against the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round with an interception in the end zone keeping it a 14-0 game heading into halftime.
Joining Butler in the middle was Te’o. The second-round pick suffered a foot injury in the first preseason game that forced him to miss extended time. He returned almost two months later in Week 4 against Dallas, but it took a few games for the rookie to get his feet under him. Nonetheless, Te’o ranked third on the game in tackles with 93 to go along with five tackles for a loss, four passes defensed and two quarterback hits. Te’o was a monster in the regular season finale against the Kansas City Chiefs, racking up a season-high 10 tackles in the victory.
Two outside linebackers lost for the season were Freeney and Larry English. Prior to his exit with a severe quad injury in Week 4, Freeney recorded one tackle that was good for a loss and 0.5 sacks. However, he had seven quarterback pressures in that span, a number that actually led all linebackers for the season. English was injured in Week 10 against the Denver Broncos. In nine games, he recorded 19 tackles, 2.5 sacks, three tackles for loss, four pressures, five quarterback hits, one pass defensed and one forced fumble.
A key reserve for the Bolts proved to be Reggie Walker. Picked up shortly before the season began, the versatile Walker started the season off as an inside linebacker before moving to the outside. Primarily a special teams beast during his time with the Arizona Cardinals, Walker saw the most playing time of his career on defense and impressed. Overall, he notched 42 tackles, 3.0 sacks, five tackles for loss, four quarterback pressures, six hits, two passes defensed and one forced fumble.
Thomas Keiser proved to be a valuable pass rusher for the Chargers. Signed off the practice squad after Freeney’s injury, the outside linebacker notched 20 tackles, 4.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits (third on team), four pressures and one interception. He notched two sacks in a Week 7 victory in Jacksonville while his interception of Peyton Manning was a critical play in the rousing Thursday night Week 15 win in Denver on Thursday night. .
Bront Bird and Andrew Gachkar were reliable backups at the inside linebacker positions as well, both finishing with 25 tackles. Meanwhile, sixth-round pick Tourek Williams saw limited duty but made the most of it with 11 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.